Banning vs. managing 'dirty dozen' pollutants

This month chemical firms argued for a treaty of control, asenvironmentalists just said no.

Last year in Montreal nearly 100 countries agreed in theory to restrict the use of the "dirty dozen" - 12 of the most toxic pesticides and industrial chemicals and byproducts that linger in the environment.

That was the easy part. Now these countries are trying to decide just how strict will be the ban on the so-called "persistent organic pollutants," or POPs.

They're set to come up with a treaty by the end of next year, with hopes that each country will ratify it by 2005.

Guiding this effort is the Governing Council of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), based in Nairobi.This month the council began to hammer away at the first draft of the treaty. Environmental groups, such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), said governments should not only commit to eliminating the chemicals but should do so now.

They had a week to make their case to more than 100 countries assembled under the auspices of UNEP for the second gathering of the so-called Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on a chemical ban.

But they didn't get very far. Chemical manufacturers - represented in Nairobi by the International Council of Chemical Associations - argued that the 12 pollutants were indeed dangerous but could be managed.

"Every other word in their brochure is 'management,' " says Lee Poston of the WWF, wrestling with his tie in the heat of a Nairobi taxi. "The truth is these chemicals will not be managed."

The "dirty dozen" are chemicals that won't break down and won't stay put - traveling through air and water once released to the environment.

They include aldrin, chlordane, DDT, dieldrin, endrin, heptachor, mirex, toxaphene, hexachlorobenzene, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and the unintended byproducts called dioxins and furans.

"DDT can be sprayed in a village in Africa and end up in the fat of polar bears in the Arctic," the WWF said in its initial presentation.

POPs are nondegradable and highly toxic, with various human afflictions and the decline of several maritime species traced back to them, researchers say. They have moved up the food chain - the vermin-to-human ladder.

Chemical manufacturers have taken issue with some of the findings but by and large agree that the 12 chemicals ought not to be around.

Point of agreement

"We think that persistent organic pollutants are dangerous, and yes, that in the long term their elimination should be an objective," says Michael Walls, senior counsel at the Chemical Manufacturers Association USA (CMA). Elimination in the short-to-medium term, he adds, is out of the question:

"Take PCBs. They are widespread in all kinds of electrical equipment. They're everywhere. We are talking about a worldwide electrical network with a life span of many, many more years. This equipment is ubiquitous. It's been used in projects of rural electrification. It's impossible to eliminate."

Activists at the International POPs Elimination Network (IPEN) - which includes 130 nonprofit organizations - acknowledge that a chemical ban has complexities and that "the elimination of all significant POPs sources ... will, in many cases, be difficult and take time."

Yet IPEN sees no reason that time or difficulty should interfere with commitment to total elimination. The management of the pollutants, the group notes, "should be viewed as a supplement to [their] elimination, and not as an alternative."

"Go back to the first Governing Council decision," Mr. Walls says, "to where it says the intent is to reduce and/or eliminate, as appropriate, the listed POPs. What this means is that there is an inherent recognition that there are some POPs that, as a practical matter, you cannot eliminate."

The real issue

Everything can be eliminated, activists say: The real issue is money.

Walls warns that the costs of overhauling a global electrical network would be horrific. He stresses the longevity of the equipment already in place. He adds that the governments represented in Nairobi didn't linger long on the subject, evidently understanding the costs involved.

To the environmentalists the costs of not eliminating the "dirty dozen" would be worse.

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